01 Aug 2022

History:

Lost Capitol Hill: Pontius Stelle and his hotels

I have written a fair bit about hotels and boarding houses, so important in the early days of Capitol Hill, and the name Pontius Stelle has popped up numerous times but I never have gotten around to researching him. While poking around for ––as always–– something completely different, I came upon a short biography written by his great-granddaughter Maud Burr Morris, and published in 1904 in the Records of the Columbia Historical Society. I can now fill in the gaps in some of the early history of Capitol Hill.

Pontius Delare Stelle was born in Trenton, New Jersey on February 15, 1763, the son of Pontius Stelle and Rachel Hooton Stelle, née Barnes. He would live there for the next almost 30 years, including during the Revolutionary War, when his family’s home was used as headquarters by the Hessian and English troops during the Battle of Trenton. Stelle would become a functionary in the city of Trenton, both in his private life as a member of the Masons, but also in public life, becoming the city’s treasurer.

He would marry Beulah Burr Wharton, a young widow, in 1793, and over the next few years they had several children.

In 1799, Stelle ditched his comfortable life in Trenton, and moved to the new capital. Realizing that there would be a huge demand for accommodation once the government moved in, he opened a hotel. It was located, most likely, on Square 687. Not only does that building no longer exist, but none of the buildings on that square do; it is now the north eastern section of the Capitol grounds. In fact, it is not even clear where on the square the building existed. Contemporary accounts simply assume that everyone knows where Stelle’s was. Morris quotes a notice from that time which states that “the location is so well known that it is unnecessary to say more.” It is even possible that Stelle operated several hotels in different places at this time.

The Old Brick Capitol, seen here in a pre-Civil War Mathew Brady picture. Tunnicliff’s hotel is the wing on the left side of the building (National Archives)

His subsequent hotel is much better known: He took over Tunnicliff’s hotel. Records indicate that he bought the hotel plus the land making up the northwest corner of the square on which the Supreme Court now sits in 1804, and in March of the following year, he put his old place up for sale or rent, and a few days later put in an announcement that thanked “his friends and the public for their favors,” adding that he was now “enlarging and improving” the old Tunnicliff’s building, and requested their continuing patronage.

Morris found William W. Birth, a stone mason who had lived all his life in D.C., and who had known the hotel in its heyday. Birth, who can be seen above, described it thus:

The house was erected in the last decade of the eighteenth century, about 1795. It was built of red brick, the front on A street being profusely ornamented with dressed and moulded free stone from the same quarries that supplied the material used in the President’s mansion and the older parts of the Capitol. There was a side building adjoining on the east of the main structure used […] as a dining room, and extensive stabling in the rear to accommodate coaches and teams arriving daily from Baltimore.

More on Stelle and his hotels next week.


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